Vinyl and luck

April 16, 2007

Two interesting links from the Coolfer music industry blog today.

The New York Sun writes about how “hipsters” in Brooklyn (the Manhattan of the ’00s?) have “rediscovered” vinyl records. I don’t know if I qualify as a hipster, but I’ve continued to buy records whenever possible, new and used, even when the entire world was moving to CDs in the early 1990s. I consequently have more than 600 records today, and I actually listen to the things regularly–they’re not just taking up space in a box somewhere. Given the continued existence and crowds at well-curated record stores like Berkeley’s Amoeba (my personal version of Mecca) and Seattle’s Jive Time (used classics) and Zion’s Gate, it appears I’m not alone. The benefits are clear to many music fans–a generally warmer and rounder sound, and album art you can actually look at.

The big disadvantage: they’re harder to convert to a digital format to carry with you. Which is why, if Microsoft were serious about attracting hardcore music fans with the Zune, they should update their four-year-old Analog Recorder application–which works perfectly and is brain-dead simple to use–and build it into the Zune software.

The second article, from the New York Times Magazine, talks about a study that proves something that I’ve known for a long time: most people form their opinions about music based on other people’s opinions about music. Or, popularity breeds popularity. This makes it almost impossible to predict which songs or artists are going to be hits, and which are doomed to toil in obscurity. The study also definitively severs the link between quality and popularity–in a blind group, in which users downloaded songs based only on how well they liked them, the top downloads were completely different than in the eight study groups, in which users could see which downloads were most popular.

For those of us who’ve spent our entire musical lives toiling at the bottom of the ladder of success, it’s nice to know that our failure isn’t entirely due to lack of talent or laziness.

Celestial jukebox is here

April 11, 2007

Finally. Unlike Microsoft’s crippled Zune, the SanDisk Sansa Connect lets you connect to any open Wi-Fi network, and lets you download unlimited music from Yahoo’s subscription Unlimited To Go service, which is $15 a month or $12 a month if you buy a year in advance. You can also listen to Yahoo’s LaunchCast radio service for free.

Sounds like there might still be a few bugs to work out with the software syncing–apparently, it doesn’t sync downloads very well–and it’s only 4GB, which is too small for folks with large local music libraries (like me), but the fact that you can now have access to 2 million songs anytime, anywhere, is a significant change. And it looks like they beat a similar iRiver/Rhapsody device to market.

If Microsoft had launched Zune with this feature, it would have gotten way more attention. Now they’re going to be playing catch up.

Of course, Apple might be right–it might turn out that consumers want to own their music and aren’t interested in subscription services like this. But at least the choice is now out there.

EMI offers DRM-less tracks through iTunes

April 5, 2007

Both Jobs and EMI have been telegraphing this move: for $1.29, you can now get all songs in EMI’s digital download catalog as 256kbps AAC files with–ta-da!–no DRM. And while Lefsetz is pissed that that they raised the price for these tracks, I like it as the first small step away from the record industry’s self-defeating efforts to control user behavior with inept and unfriendly technology.

Wired columnist Eliot van Buskirk, anxious for any headline that portrays Microsoft as loser, seems to miss an important point: the Zune natively plays AAC files. That’s right–along with going into direct competition with the players and stores that have long supported Windows Media Audio (WMA), Microsoft went and supported the file format favored by its number-one competitor. Sure, Microsoft would have liked to establish WMA as the de facto standard, but it’s basically acknowledged that particular war is over, and it’s lost. Microsoft is not even pushing WMA for telephone handsets anymore–instead, it’s gone and built a generalized DRM system (or “content access” technology as they call it) and will let the carriers apply it to any file format they want–including AAC.

In other words, Microsoft just hopes you buy a new PC to store all your digital media files. They’re not as concerned as they once were about what format those files are in.

Do Make Say Think

March 8, 2007

Do Make Say Think played gorgeous music last night at Neumo’s in Seattle. A music critic might classify them as “post-rock,” a genre that involves lots of instruments, extreme shifts in dynamics, slow tempos, classical constructions (lots of triads, few sevenths or jazz chords), and few or no vocals. “Post-” because most of the musicians came out of the rock world (particularly punk), but somewhere along the way evolved (or devolved?) into more “grown-up” sounding music. Other bands in the genre include Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Tortoise. Personally, I like to think of these bands as the musical successors to mid-era Pink Floyd–after Syd Barrett left, but before they turned into a classic rock megaphenomenon; like Umma Gumma and the movie soundtrack albums More and Obscured by Clouds.

But here’s the interesting part. I was perched in the perfect spot for ultimate stereo sound (directly between the two enormous banks of speakers at the front of the club, as far away from them as they were from each other, like the third point of an equilateral triangle), when a younger guy, maybe 25 or so, asked me if I could move to the side. He had two stereo mics and some sort of digital recording box. I asked him if he was with the band, and he replied no, but that Do Make Say Think have an open taping policy (popularized by the Grateful Dead and often used by other hippie-jam bands), and that he posts all his recordings on Most interesting, he uses an open-source (this was very important, he mentioned it several times) lossless audio codec called FLAC that I wasn’t familiar with. Lossless codecs give you the exact same bits as a CD-quality recording, but are compressed to about half-CD size simply by eliminating a lot of blank bits–it’s basically like zipping a computer file.

Two things about this really struck me:

  1. Do Make Say Think don’t benefit directly from letting this guy record their shows, but allowing those shows to be recorded, posted freely, and traded benefits the band overall–it drives excitement and gets people out to live shows, where they might buy merchandise.
  2. This whole scene couldn’t have been further from the corporate rock world that Microsoft so desperately wants to enter with Zune. They’re striking this indie rock pose, but it’s really about fashion more than about the music–the Zune doesn’t even support Windows Media Audio Lossless, the only WMA codec that an audiophile like this kid would have found interesting. And of course their stance on DRM is completely alienating.

Squrting in the wild

February 12, 2007

Newsweek correspondent and longtime tech journalist Steven Levy spoke at the University Book Store the other night, and because he’d promised to have his Zune there, I took the opportunity to “squirt” him one of my songs. Our brief interaction highlighted the two big flaws with Zune’s wireless sharing feature:

1. The “first man with a telephone problem”–if nobody else has a Zune, who are you going to trade songs with? I’ve been to Microsoft a few times since I got my player, and I always bring it with me and turn on the wireless feature. I’ve never encountered another Zune with the wireless turned on. In fact, this was the first time I’ve ever shared a song wirelessly (outside of the Zune Lounge at CES, which was totally contrived–set up by Microsoft specifically to get people to share).

2. The way Zune applies the 3 plays, 3 days restrictions to all music–even music that the Zuneholder owns the rights to, as was the case with this song. (OK, actually I didn’t write the song, our guitarist did, but I wrote the bass part and played on this recording…and in an unsigned obscure instrumental band it’s not exactly like there’s a lot of contention over who owns what.) This particularly sucks because, as DRM systems go, the Windows Media DRM technology that Zune uses is very flexible–it would have been entirely possible to allow end-users to set their own DRM restrictions on unprotected music. Of course, the record companies wouldn’t allow that because the assumption is that most music on a Zune is ripped from a mainstream CD.

I still think Zune has a chance if Microsoft rethinks the wireless connectivity and lets people do some interesting things with it.

Zune vs. iPod: Peripherals

December 27, 2006

I’m not writing the Zune off nearly as quickly as most commentators, if only because I’ve seen what Microsoft is doing to Sony with the Xbox 360. Also, now that I’ve learned to work around or live unhappily with a few really annoying software glitches, I actually am enjoying the Zune more than my 4th generation iPod (if I had a fifth-generation Pod with color screen, it might be a different story). And I definitely agree with this former iPod fanatic that the Zune offers better audio quality than iPod–and this is on the exact same AAC files that I originally ripped from CD into iTunes.

But one area where Zune will have a really hard time catching up is third-party peripherals.

This Christmas is a case in point. My wife wanted a way to play music up in the baby’s room, so I bought her an iPod clock radio from iHome, and it’s one of the most thoughtful, well-designed pieces of consumer electronics equipment I’ve ever purchased. Plug an iPod into the dock and it charges while playing. The remote control controls both the iPod (to skip songs, fast forward, and so on) and the clock radio (to change the volume, switch to radio, and so on). It’s got an atomic clock with separate buttons to set the time zone and the manual minute-by-minute movement. It’s got a lighted faceplate with an intuitive dimmer switch. There’s nothing really stunning or original about it, it’s just simple, elegant, and works like you expect it to. (Shows how low my standards have gotten for consumer electronics, I guess.) 99 bucks at the Apple Store.

The other side of the coin: knowing that I’m giving my Zune a real go, my wife bought me two peripheral packs. The Car Pack with FM Transmitter, like its many iPod equivalents, lets you play your Zune through an unused frequency on your car’s FM radio. When the Zune team briefed me back in September, one of their folks bragged about the transmitter’s Autoseek function, which is supposed to automatically find the nearest blank station so you don’t have to do it manually. Let me tell the world: it doesn’t work. At all. It suggested 88.5, the local NPR station, and 107.7, an alternative station. Two of the strongest radio signals in Seattle. I finally found that 91.1 works fairly well, although all of these FM transceivers are sketchy in major urban areas with lots of radio stations.

My wife also bought me the Home A/V Pack, which is intended to let you dock your Zune (the dock has the same cool rubberized plastic finish as the device itself) and connect it to your home entertainment system, then control it with a remote. For some reason, the only cable included was an 1/8-inch (which connects to the base) to composite RCA (which connects to your home entertainment system). Fine and dandy, except I have 600 records downstairs with my real stereo and would never dream of listening to highly compressed digital audio on that system. Instead, I want to connect the dock to the small Bose in my living room, which has an 1/8 inch auxiliary input. Nope. Not supported. I had to use an iPod connector (part of a much cheaper home A/V pack I bought for the iPod a year ago), and then jam it into the base station, which was constructed specifically to accept a three-notch 1/8-inch jack instead of the standard audio-only two-notch jack. (I don’t know but am guessing that the notches correspond to the number of discrete signals transmitted. Left, right, and in the case of the A/V jack, video.) Once I got it set up, though, it did offer really nice sound through the Bose–considerably better than the iPod.

Last anecdote: my wife had to go to three stores before she found one (Car Toys) that stocked these peripherals. And the guy at Car Toys said he’d only sold one Zune, and that it had been returned the next day! Other local consumer electronics stores said they were waiting to see if it took off. And this in Microsoft’s back yard, the strongest market for Zune so far.

The point: the iPod has become a platform on which third-parties innovate. The Zune has a lot of proving to do before perhiperhal makers and retailers will give it the same level of support. Ironic given the respective history of the two companies in the personal computer space.

The future of Zune?

December 19, 2006

One of the big knocks against Microsoft’s Zune player is that songs you beam to one another wirelessly expire after three days or three plays.

But now it appears like this is just the first step. A recent Microsoft Research paper proposes a new business model in which end-users are distributors. The idea is I could beam (“squirt” in Microsoftese) a song (or eventually video) to you and if you like it, you agree to buy it and the DRM goes away. Zune keeps track of every transaction and compensates the content owners after the fact. Most interesting, the seller gets a few MS Points as commission. This gets around the whole “DRM sucks” problem—instead of telling people not to share and relying on flawed technology to prevent it, they offer incentives to share. Apparently MS is getting patents in place and J Allard has talked about this publicly a few times.

Fantastic idea. Instead of trying to stop natural human behavior, capitalize on it. It’s certainly better than clutching the anchor as the ship goes down.

Zune software = Windows Media Player (too bad…)

November 17, 2006

I finally got my review copy of Microsoft’s new Zune player. I saw a demo of the hardware about a month ago and liked it perfectly well, but was withholding judgment until I saw the software.

Well, at least I didn’t have installation problems like the good folks at Engadget. But it’s clear that, despite what the Zune people told me, the Zune software is essentially a skinned version of Windows Media Player 11.

Now, I was prepared to believe this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–the new Windows Media Player is significantly easier to use and more appealing than the older versions. But the Zune software suffers from one of my biggest complaints with past versions of the Media Player: it totally mangles metadata. (Metadata is the data describing your content, which is what allows the software to display the album name, artist name, genre, and so on.)

I’m a bit of an odd case because I’ve got more than 2,000 songs from two different sources. The majority are songs I ripped from a CD directly into iTunes. Several hundred, however are songs that I recorded from a vinyl LP record using the Analog Recorder feature in Microsoft’s Digital Media Plus Pack. These are Windows Media Audio (WMA) tracks. Then, I allowed iTunes to convert these tunes to Apple’s format (Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC) so they could play on my iPod.

The Zune software didn’t like this. In most instances, it offered me duplicate versions of some–but not all–of the songs on albums I ripped. That makes some sense–it was reading the WMA versions from my MyMusic library and the AAC versions from iTunes. But when I eliminated the AAC versions (which are at a lower bitrate and therefore lower quality) it couldn’t figure out that all these songs were from the same album. So, for example, I had two versions of Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. The first contained the first six songs (side 1 on the record), which were WMA files from the LP. The second contained the second five songs (side 2), which were the converted AAC files from iTunes. (I have no idea why it didn’t just pull all the WMA files.) It did this even though the album title was the same on all of 11 songs, even though the song titles matched the titles in Microsoft’s online database of every album ever recorded, even though I dragged and dropped the songs to the same album image.

Weirder yet, when I reopened the software a few hours later, it had “figured out” the problem and now had all the songs in one place. I have no idea how this happened.

There were other instances of mangling metadata. All my Beastie Boys CDs were ripped directly into iTunes. They showed up just fine in the Zune software on the PC. But for some reason, I ended up with two indexes of all my Beastie Boys songs on the actual Zune player. One was a list of songs, in alphabetical order, listed under the heading “The Beastie Boys.” One was a list of the albums, listed under the heading “Beastie Boys.” The reason? Because the Windows Media Player designers, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that they need two almost identical fields: “Artist” and “Album Artist.” The “Artist” field, it populated with “The Beastie Boys,” which was how it had been listed in iTunes. The “Album Artist,” it auto-populated with “Beastie Boys,” which it drew from its own database. The only solution–manually select all the songs, change one field so it’s the same as the other.

Then there was album art. Sometimes, when the software couldn’t figure out what album it was looking at, it wouldn’t download the album art. So there’s a neat-sounding feature called “Update album info,” which connects to the Microsoft music database, checks your songs against the songlist on the database, and uploads all the proper information. Unfortunately, it also changes any fields that you’ve customized. Now, with iTunes, I usually create my own genres–I refuse to classify Godspeed You Black Emperor with the meaningless term “Alternative.” They’re a nine-piece instrumental band with mostly stringed instruments. So I classified their albums under “Ambient.” But when I tried to retrieve the album art for one of their albums, the Zune software reclassified it for me. Annoying.

Mutliply these niggling little problems times 2,000 songs and you can imagine what a pain in the ass this is.

The verdict: they better figure a better way to integrate iTunes libraries, or they have no chance of converting a single iPod user.

Microsoft to pay Zune spiffs to Universal

November 9, 2006

This seemingly innocuous agreement, under which Microsoft pays a fe dollars to Universal Music Group (one of the Big Four record companies) every time it sells one of its ZUne portable media devices, could actually grow into something really groundbreaking and important.

The music industry’s current approach is a dead end. DRM is fundamentally flawed technically (there’s no third-party attacker–you must eventually present the content to the person you’re trying to protect it against) and from a business perspective (users pay more to get less). File-sharing is gradually gaining more legal protection everywhere but the United States (which is irrelevant given the global scope of the Internet). CD retailers are going out of business. Consumers are learning to hate the record companies, who sue them and try to take over their computers with malicious software.

Many observers, myself included, believe that the better way forward for the music industry is a pooled-payment system for digital distribution. Add a few bucks added to the sale price of every digital media app or device, and perhaps even to monthly ISP bills. Then, some sort of tracking system could track how many times particular files are uploaded, duplicated, played, etc., and payments disbursed accordingly. Shawn Fanning (Napster founder) is trying to build a business based around this idea but hasn’t had many takers yet.

Microsoft is going ahead and doing it anyway with Zune. Short run, this gives UMG a stake in Zune’s success, and could get them to agree to steps such as eliminating the “3 days, 3 plays restriction” for Zune-to-Zune transfer, allowing Zune-PC-Xbox transfers, enabling the rumored “DJ mode” (broadcast to Zunes within range), subscription-based anytime-anywhere wireless access to millions of songs (the music lover’s dream), and so on.

Long run, if everybody follows suit, this could create a much friendlier world for digital music–consumers aren’t burdened by arbitrary and annoying restrictions, content owners get some compensation instead of nothing (as is the case with piracy).

The kids are alright

September 27, 2006

Visiting my in-laws in Eastern Tennessee this week. Because I’m so old (going on 37!), I  like to check in with my nephew (20) and niece (12) to see what the real music fans are into. I suppose I’ve been reading about the iPod/MySpace generation for long enough that I shouldn’t be surprised, but they don’t have any affection for the Top 40 dance hits they play at the gym, and don’t really care what MTV or the radio plays.

My nephew’s a pretty big music fan. (I like to take some credit for taking him to a Sonic Youth [disclaimer: I don't like them that much] concert and introducing him to my vinyl collection when he was 14.) So it’s not particularly surprising that alongside Green Day he’s got CDs and goes to shows by more obscure bands like Of Montreal. But the Captain Beefheart collection was seriously unexpected. So was Roger Waters’ recently completed opera, Ca Ira–even I don’t have that, and I’m about the most fanatic Waters and (old) Pink Floyd fan around. He checks his MySpace site every day and carries his U2 iPod (with radio tuner attached) 24-7. He asked me about the upcoming “Microsoft player” (Zune) and was interested in the wireless sharing capability, but his most interesting comment about it: “It doesn’t use the Windows Media Player, does it? I hate the Media Player, it totally sucks.” Looks like the Zune team made the right call by building its own software.

My niece has been through her Britney/Justin phase, but now that junior high has started, she’s  into pop bands with indie-rock stylings  like Snow Patrol (who have the #5 single in the country–who knew?) and Stone Sour. But more surprising is how music lingo has crept into her speech. She describes herself and her friends as “punk,” but she means simply that they’re outcasts who don’t dress like preppies, not that she listens to punk rock or wants a mohawk (although she does want bright-red hair). And when one of her friends begins putting on that air of teenage angst and depression, she says they’re going “emo.” Hilarious.

And I can’t remember the last time there were so many records on my “to buy” or “bought” lists in the Billboard Top 100. Bob Dylan, Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, TV on the Radio, The Roots, and Yo La Tengo. Wait long enough, and the mainstream will come to you.


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